The concept of alignment — whereby IT delivers measurable strategic results, and IT leaders are seen as strategic advisors — has long been held up as the ultimate goal for an effective CIO. In this model, as the CEO sets strategic goals for the company, IT leaders are right there helping define the objectives, set the measurements, and provide the tools to get the job done. While this makes for an effective and highly valued IT organization, sometimes alignment isn't possible, and pursuing this goal can be detrimental to the leader and the IT team.
Perfect the utility aspect first
The mere mention of getting involved in corporate strategy will fall on deaf ears if the ERP system is frequently down, or if the IT project portfolio is littered with failures and overruns. The only thing worse than a struggling IT shop is an IT leader who doesn't acknowledge the challenges, and fails to present a credible plan for mitigating them.
If you find yourself in this situation, develop a mitigation plan with timelines and critical milestones and share it with your peers outside IT. By detailing dates and metrics and communicating that information to peers, you'll not only buy your organization time, but you'll start laying the groundwork for the strategic discussions that will come later. Also, acknowledging that IT is in rough shape will build your credibility, and developing a realistic plan and then sticking to it will demonstrate IT's ability to execute what it sets out to do — critical criteria when you start executing your strategic vision.
Seize the opportunity to create a strategy
Even with the utility and project execution capabilities of your IT organization well under control, you still may find it impossible to achieve alignment with your business peers if there's no comprehensive business strategy.
While it might be shocking, a number of companies don't have a detailed strategic plan and merely react to the environment. This can occur for myriad reasons, from difficult economic times that create a de facto strategy of "just survive," to companies that are doing well and grow complacent, essentially adopting a strategy of "just keep doing what you're doing." Mergers and divestitures can also throw strategy by the wayside, with integration activities consuming so much attention and activity that there's room for little else.
You can often tell when there's no overarching strategy in place if the heads of different functional units are focused on their own internal metrics, and articulate very different ideas when asked about the overall corporate strategy. If there are no key organizational metrics, that's your first clue that there's no comprehensive strategy, since every effective strategy needs to highlight a way to track progress.
This rather rare situation can present an opportunity for savvy IT leaders to start discussions about the lack of a comprehensive corporate strategy. If you find yourself in this situation, you'll have to do more work to identify the metrics that should drive your IT organization; true business alignment is likely impossible, except perhaps at the functional level. If marketing has a well-developed strategy, you can align your IT plan to help them accomplish their goals, but you may remain "unaligned" from a sales or finance function that simply rolls whichever way the prevailing corporate winds happen to be blowing at the moment.
In the worst case, attempt your own analysis of corporate strategy, look at what's driving your company internally and externally, and attempt to build your IT organization's priorities around that assessment. Often, you'll find that flexibility and adaptability are key to surviving in most industries, so attempt to build your IT strategy with these tenets.
While it can be difficult or even impossible to achieve the elusive goal of IT alignment in these scenarios, that doesn't prevent you from being an effective IT leader. If you can perfect the utility and execution aspects of IT, and perhaps even get some practice in defining corporate strategy, your organization can be effective and efficient. Building in flexibility and adaptability will prepare you for a shift in thinking that ultimately results in a well-defined strategy and prepares you to readily align with it once it's in place.
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Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent over a decade providing strategy consulting services to Fortune 500 and 1000 companies. Patrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can follow his blog at www.itbswatch.com. All opinions are his and may not represent those of his employer.